OCTOBER 2008

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HAMLET by William Shakespeare | A Noise Within
JOE'S GARAGE by Frank Zappa, adapted by Pat Towne and Michael Franco | Open Fist Theatre
THE LADY WITH ALL THE ANSWERS by David Rambo | Pasadena Playhouse
THE RAINMAKER by N. Richard Nash | A Noise Within
SPRING AWAKENING book and lyrics by Stephen Sater, music by Duncan Shiek | Ahmanson Theatre
THIS BEAUTIFUL CITY by Steve Cosson and Jim Lewis, music and lyrics by Michael Friedman | Kirk Douglas Theatre


Deborah Strang and Freddy Douglas in 'Hamlet' at A Noise Within. Photo by Craig Schwartz

Ghost of a Trance

By eliminating the character whose pre-show exit set the story in motion, and the one whose arrival at curtain brought it to an end, Director Michael Michetti's adaptation of Hamlet baffles the aperture to blinder us to the supernatural realm and focus on the mind of Shakespeare's great tragic hero. For his purposes, A Noise Within has stocked its season-opening production (through December 7) with a superior cast. His take asks added dimension of his lead. Freddy Douglas proves he's up to the challenge. Michetti's concept, however, may not be.

Michetti has given the role of The Ghost of Hamlet's father to Hamlet. Horatio (a fine Steve Coombs) has seen him and advises his friend to join him on the ramparts to confirm the phenomenon. The Ghost enters through his son and his speeches along with Hamlet's are delivered by Douglas as a man whose two personalities are in a highly agitated conversation with each other.

Were it not for a reference in the program that Douglas indeed plays Hamlet and Ghost, we might believe that the Ghost is no more than a psychological boil on the Prince's mental state, and not the intrusion of a dead spirit. Compounding the confusion is that Hamlet actually sees his father in himself, reflected in an upstage panel on uncertain origin. It is all an interesting and refreshing premise, though it begs the question, where does the factual information about the King's murder and usurpation come from?

The schizo-dialogue is handled well by Douglas, though finding some staging technique to let him do less to distinguish the two would be welcome.

And so we concentrate our story more than usual on Hamlet himself. Douglas, whose appearance here in last season's Henry IV, Part 1 made the current production an eagerly anticipated highlight of the current season, does not disappoint. He is aided by a sympathetic Deborah Strang as Gertrude, wonderfully comic Tony Abatemarco as Polonius, and Francois Giroday as Claudius, creating rich character equally capable of tempestuous, table-upturning fury and almost giddy party-going fun.

Dorothea Hanrahan makes Ophelia veer in appreciable wide arcs, too, from her distraught entrance after reading Hamlet's letters, to hope, conspiracy and ultimately the loneliness and pain of madness. Coombs' Horatio and Abatemarco's Polonius, one as solid as the other is demented, also give this production great breadth.

The one area where the production fails to impress is in its design. Sara Ryung Clement creates a costume rack pulled from a variety of periods and a set tied to none of them. Unfortunately none of the more fanciful costumes are very impressive in design or construction. Material seems discounted and lines are generally stiff rather than supple.

The set of drape, plexi and scrim is all crowded up above the proscenium and hard to make out as anything. It's a sad contribution on a stage that so often has had such brilliance and resourcefulness from the likes of Michael C. Smith. Fortunately Peter Gottlieb's lights help a great deal, as does the original music and sound design of Kari Rae Seekins.

The play will soon be joined by The Rainmaker and then a Neil Bartlett adaptation of Oliver Twist. The repertory season runs through the first week of December.


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HAMLET

adapted by WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
directed by MICHAEL MICHETTI

A NOISE WITHIN

November 6-December 14, 2008
(Opened 11/7, rev'd 11/8)

CAST Freddy Douglas, Tony Abatemarco, Deborah Strang, Dorothea Harahan, Jacob Sidney, Steve Coombs, Matthew Jaeger, Francois Giroday, Mark Bramhall

PRODUCTION Sara Clement, Set/Costumes; Peter Gottlieb, lights; Kari Seekins, music/sound; Monica Sabedra, hair/make-up; Ken Merckx, fights; John Pennington, choreography; Susan Coulter, stage management


Deborah Strang, Freddy Douglas
Craig Schwartz

Blowjobs against the empire

Frank Zappa personified the highest ambitions of rock music. He considered himself a composer first, a musician second, a singer not at all, and a lyricist by necessity only. His three-decade career ñ fronting his ëMothers of Invention' and on his own ñ drew inspiration from obscure avant garde composers, R and B hit makers and lots in-between. In 1979, around the midpoint of a recording output that began with Freak Out in 1966 and ended with his death at 52 in 1993, he released Joe's Garage, Act I, II and III. Nearly 30 years later Open Fist Theatre in Hollywood has staged its premiere (through November 22) under the watchful eye of Zappa's widow, Gail.

Jason Paige and 'the Muffin Chorus' in 'Joe's Garage' at Open Fist Theatre

The original double-album, now 2-CD set, of Joe's Garage included lyrics in script form, stage directions and character descriptions: everything a garage of thespians needed to stage a lip-synch version. Now, co-adaptors Pat Towne (who directs) and Michael Franco have put the 90-minute recording on its feet with word-for-word, note-for-note faithfulness. No little feat. To do so they assembled the key element, a Joe who makes this work as rock and as theater, and a band that can handle Zappa's mercurial music, from crushing hard rock to unison runs of high-velocity jazz – all in a music-stand-demanding sampler of shifting key and time signatures. While the Fist's brick-box acoustics might have bothered the meticulous Zappa, they do further the "garage-band" sensibility. The entire physical production, in fact, has a kind of found-art brilliance to it: Franco, Jeff G. Rack and Shawn MacAulay did the set, puppets and props; Martine Granby designed costumes; Cricket Sloat contributed lights; and Sam Saldivar filled the two projection screens.)

Jason Paige's Joe, however, is a performance that fearlessly goes where no one has gone before. Singing his heart out as was the requirement of Zappa vocalists, he soars on the authentic playing of the band under the musical direction of bassist Ross Wright. Ben Thomas, in a role that sadly falls off Zappa's narrative too early, is also terrific.

Zappa's story, such as it is, is a paranoid fantasia for the success-bound rock musician. From garage band roots to local success and record company support, Joe's story hits high and low notes of rock star mythology -- from yelling neighbors to yielding groupies to mindless journalists and soulless record execs. His zigzag tale seems built more to hang a line from which his songs can be sung. While Zappa was a great defender of freedom of speech, and a crusader against censorship right into to the halls of Congress, here his sense of the dramatic leans more towards the shocking than the structured.

The compelling Orwellian tone and sanctimonious call for absolutely free speech seems to be clearing the way for nothing more purposeful than our right to have sex in public and swear up a storm. As appealing as that is, we need more. As if, after the garage owner gives total independence and freedom of expression to the teen band members he houses, then returns to see all they used it for was spray painting "pussy" and "fuck" on the walls. Okay, fine: That's a start. Today, the underlying themes of abusive power never needed to be so vague and sophomoric. Sexual freedom may be the obsession of high schoolers, but the imperials we need to blow down are the constitutional rapists like Cheney and Rumsfeld. Their ilk is always roaming around like Twain's Duke and King.

Nevertheless, the actors and band, as well as the designers and backstage crowd who built this impressive physical production, have invested it with a kind of zealous fervor. The devotion to recreating Zappa's world is unquestioning, understandable, and only once ill-served - when we get an entire Zappa piece played in the dark. (A few minutes would serve the purpose.) However, when the band launches into 'Peaches en Regalia,' one of Zappa's great instrumental pieces off the 'Hot Rats' lp, we are believers again.

Joe's Garage is garage band mythology, paranoid fantasy, civil rights righteousness stitched into a storyline that never rises too far above the interests of a couple High School juniors indulging their fantasies after draining a keg. But the sheer force of the music is connecting with younger audiences, many of whom, if even born when the record came out, certainly weren't buying it. That they're buying Zappa's music now is the latest marvel from the wonderful folks with the Open Fist.


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JOE'S GARAGE

written by FRANK ZAPPA
adapted by PAT TOWNE
and MICHAEL FRANCO
choreography by JENNIFER LETTELLEIR
musical direction by ROSS WRIGHT

directed by PAT TOWNNE

OPEN FIST THEATRE

October - November 24, 2008
(Opened 10/, rev'd 10/17 extended to 12/20)

CAST Jason Paige, Ben Thomas, Michael Dunn, Becky Wahlstrom, David Castellani, Maia Madison, Mario Mosley, Tom Burruss, Matt Crabtree, Nicole Disson, Crystal Keith, Jennifer Lettelleir, Pip Lilly, Lindsay Loesel, Jonny Marlow, Franci Montgomery, Herbert Russell, Laura Sperrazza, Glen Anthony Vaughan

MUSICIANS Ross Wright, bass; Ian Dahlberg, sax/keyboards; Daniel Kaminski, malacat/percussion; Scott Nagatini, keyboards; Ken Rosser, Kevin Tiernan and Chris Wabich, guitars

PRODUCTION Michael Franco, Jeff G. Rack, Shawn MacAulay, production/set/puppet design; Martine Granby, cosumes; Cricket Sloat, lights; Tim Labor, sound; Sam Saldivar, video; Marjorie Knight/Monica Martin, stage management


Jason Paige, center

Well advised

The time in 1975 when an issue stumped ëThe Lady With All the Answers,' the sobriquet Esther Pauline Friedman Lederer gave her alter ego, Ann Landers, is the occasion for David Rambo's 2006 one-woman show, now at the Pasadena Playhouse (through November 23). Rambo, with the cooperation of Lederer's daughter, Margo Howard, has created a surprisingly captivating evening that tells the Landers story as it reveals how her correspondence with ì60 million readersî became a unique conversation with America.

Mimi Kennedy as Ann Landers, 'The Lady with All the Answers' at Pasadena Playhouse. Photo by Craig Schwartz

Director Brendon Fox is fortunate to have Mimi Kennedy filling the stage with Lederer's life and Landers' letters. Kennedy gives us a sense of both the public and private personae of the ground-breaking writer, shifting almost imperceptibly between them as she mixes flashback storytelling, audience interaction (including some ìshow-of-handsî surveys), and her side of several phone calls. The calls come from her daughter, her sister Pauline Esther (the identical twin who became Landers' rival columnist, Abigail ìDear Abbyî Van Buren) and her husband of 35 years, Julius. It is Julius' actions that have caused Lederer to change format for her July 1 column, and discuss her own troubles rather than answer reader mail. The evening in which she struggles to complete the "hardest column I ever wrote" forms the time span of the play.

In the first act, Rambo lets ìEppieî tell how she became Ann Landers, how she became Mrs. Julius Lederer, and how twin sister ìPopo,î born 17 minutes later, became ìDear Abbyî less than a year after Lederer took over the Landers column from its originator, Ruth Crowley. In the second act we hear more of the letters, especially those dealing with sex, relationships and personal growth. Kennedy's portrayal balances an intuitive blend of humor, authority, self-effacement and sincere interest that allowed her to coax more confessionals out of readers than a congress of Catholic clergy.

The performance also gives the auditorium its own kind of balance. The atmosphere is both inclusive and intimate. As if the fourth wall of Gary Wissmann's beautifully tailored apartment opens onto a lecture hall for hundreds of theatergoers, we are at once alone with her in her study and a member of a cross-section of her readers.

Though The Lady With All The Answers gives the 60 million figure for 1975, according to author Mark Rhodes in the ìIllinois Review,î by the early 1990s the column ìappeared in 1,200 newspapers around the world with 90 million readers daily.î As Rambo illustrates here, Landers frequently directed that audience, built through her efforts to make individual lives better, to make the world better. When cancer research legislation had stalled on President Nixon's desk in 1971, the advice columnist became advocate and urged her readers to support the bill by mailing a clipping of the story to the White House. It's estimated that a million signed letters were sent as a result, and Nixon signed the Act.

Rambo, Fox and Kennedy have provided an engaging, entertaining and educational evening about the influential woman behind one of the most famous pen names in newspaper history.

Postscript. Landers' column would continue nearly 30 more years after the night dramatized in ëAnswers.' In June 2002, Lederer would take the copyrighted column with her to the grave. Daughter Margo, who had written her own column in the 1960s under the name ìDear Prudence,î now became ìDear Margo,î still in syndication today.

"Popo" had brought her daughter, Jeanne Phillips, on as co-writer for ìDear Abbyî before her sister's death. But two months after Eppie died, her twin was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease and Jeanne went solo. She continues to write ìDear Abby,î now estimated to be the most widely read column in the world.


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THE LADY WITH ALL THE ANSWERS

by DAVID RAMBO
directed by BRENDON FOX

PASADENA PLAYHOUSE

November 11-December 14, 2008
(Opened, reviewed 11/16)

CAST Mimi Kennedy

PRODUCTION Gary Wissmann, set; Holly Poe Durbin, costumes; Trevor Norton, lights; Lindsay Jones, sound; Carol F. Doran, wig; Joel Goldes, dialect; Lea Chazin/Hethyr Verhoef, stage management

PRODUCTION John Berger, set; Dwight Richard Odle, costumes; Paulie Jenkins, lights; David Edwards, sound; Rebecca Michelle Green/John Lowe, stage management


Mimi Kennedy
Craig Schwartz
Ross Hellwig, Bridget Flanery and Bo Foxworth in 'The Rainmaker' at A Noise Within. Photo by Craig Schwartz

Of drought and doubt

With a title that seems perfect for a region regularly facing drought (on a globe getting warmer), N. Richard Nash's ëThe Rainmaker' is in fact a multi-strand allegory about love and loneliness, having hope and losing it, and the mix of hard-bitten realism and wild-eyed wonder a person needs to make sense of it all. The 1954 Broadway hit has been revived at Glendale's A Noise Within (through December 6). Despite some acting limitations (or poor choices), Andrew J. Traister's staging has enough going for it to allow the play to speak its piece.

For extra measure, Nash has also layered in Biblical and literary references to extend ëRainmaker's' reach beyond its grasp of the human condition. Though Starbuck (Bo Foxworth) is ultimately revealed as a con man, his message is of salvation through faith: ìMaking rain takes confidence,î he instructs his doubting clients. We learn that Starbuck is one of many aliases, and imagine he chose it to calm the better-read farmers he will target during these parched days in 1954. Starbuck, Ahab's first mate in ëMoby Dick,' is, according to Herman Melville, ìa long, earnest man, and though born on an icy coast . . . [he] must have been born in some time of general drought and famine.î

Nash's story takes place in a single day in the life of a motherless family struggling more with a lack of love than with the lack of water. The Currys include HC (Mitchell Edmonds) and his three children: Noah (Steve Weingartner), Lizzie (Bridget Flanery), and Jimmy (Ross Hellwig). Resigned to accept the lack of rain, the Curry men are scheming to seed the clouds of romance by forcing Lizzie to break the ice with handsome Deputy File (Scott Roberts). While that process gets underway, Starbuck arrives out of nowhere promising to conjure up a downpour for $100.

HC hires him, as much to raise his family's spirits as reduce the heat.

The trick to the character of Starbuck is to divine where the con becomes concern. Like Harold Hill in ëThe Music Man,' who sells his marks a dream and then gets suckered right in after them, Starbuck may need the rain he promises more than the farmers. We occasionally need to sense that inner conflict ñ the cut and run versus stay and help -- as well as the kind of shaman/showman quality that is outside the control of the man. A touch more of the magician as instrument of something unseen would add to the story.

Representing his polar opposite is Noah. Nash has named the most emotionally arid character after the Bible's Great Flood rider. Noah runs the farm, dispenses advice to his lovelorn siblings with a voice of experience he's never earned, and retreats into the security of his account ledgers when human nature is too much. If he ever had an emotional relationship, it is not mentioned. Weingartner, one of Noise's solid company members, gives us a properly landlocked Noah.

Foxworth, who has the responsibility of giving the production its transcendence, doesn't tap enough of that magic and that ultimately keeping the play from achieving the resonance it seeks. He is a grounded Starbuck, and in the scenes that require that, he delivers. One such scene ends Act II, as he must get real with Flanery's Lizzie in order to give her the self-confidence he desperately wants her to have. In an honest exchange of glances, they see each other - and themselves - for who they are, as revealed in their eyes.

Lizzie is the fulcrum of the story and Flanery has the wiring for the role, but too often leans on facial expressions to insure her character's feelings are getting across. The tendency is most pronounced in emphasizing displeasure or anger. And more unfortunately, that is Lizzie's state of mind for much of the play. Flanery doesn't trust her talent to convey these emotions through the eyes and speech alone. Ironically, it is the scene in which she focuses on Lizzie's and Starbuck's eyes that shows what she's got.

Edmonds, one of the company's anchors, here anchors the play. After the loss of his wife he has committed himself to letting his children be happy. The one most within reach of that goal is Jimmy, and Hellwig delivers a beautiful version of the dreamer-in-waiting. There is just the right embrace of simplicity in the portrayal. He has discovered a key part of Nash's prescription to emotional health: don't over intellectualize. He may be hitchhiking down the road to disillusion, but he has the fun-loving embrace of life that ensures it will be in a fast car and a faster woman.

A couple of other elements do much for the show. As Sheriff Thomas, Leonard Kelly-Young makes his Noise debut with a nicely understated performance of this most minor character. And David O provides original music that is both plaintiff and evocative, adding a dimension that helps make a good production that much better.


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THE RAINMAKER

by N. RICHARD NASH
directed by ANDREW J. TRAISTER

A NOISE WITHIN

October 4-December 6, 2008
(Opened 10/12, revíd 10/23)

CAST Mitchell Edmonds, Steve Weingartner, Bridget Flanery, Ross Hellwig, Bo Foxworth, Scott Roberts, Leonard Kelly-Young

PRODUCTION James P. Taylor, set/lights; Julie Keen, costumes; Rachel Myles, sound; David O, music; Kate Barrett, stage management



Ross Hellwig, Bridget Flanery and Bo Foxworth
Craig Schwartz
Anthony Lee Medina, Andy Mientus, Matt Shingledecker, Kyle Riabko, Blake Bashoff and Ben Moss in 'Spring Awakening' at the Ahmanson Theatre. Photo by Paul Kolnik

No stage for old men

The absurd gap between what adolescents must learn about life and what formal education – and much ‘home’ schooling – lays on them is exposed by a single scene shift in ‘Spring Awakening,’ Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s 2006 musicalization of Franz Wedekind’s play, now at the Ahmanson (through December 7).

Fourteen-year-old Wendla (Christy Altomare) opens the show with “Mama Who Bore Me,” reaching out for maternal guidance as she roams the reaches of her newly charged body electric. Mama, however, refuses to lend a hand in understanding Wendla’s current situation, and that still-too-common act of denial will lead to horrible consequences.

Segue to a boys school, all the more incarcerating within Designer Christine Jones’s giant brick-walled set. The students – segregated from Wendla and her gender – are obsessed with their own stirrings. However, while their heads are stuck in a pubescent dreamworld as frightening as it is fantastic, the headmaster insists on shoving those heads into books about ancient civilizations and dead languages.

Sater (book and lyrics) and Sheik (music) have pulled the covers off Wedekind’s play in a way that makes it dynamic and urgent for today’s audiences, even as it portrays an era that was vastly more repressive. This is done by keeping it visually Victorian, but infusing it with the defiant sound and stance of rock. (Bill T. Jones did the choreography.)

Sheik’s score is feisty enough to give the actors room for swagger, but not too tough for Broadway. Thanks to Director Michael Mayer’s impressive grasp of the play’s style and subject, and an excellent ensemble’s spirited delivery, this musical could be theater’s counterpoint to the rockers who best embodied adolescent anger in past decades – from Pete Townshend, to Elvis Costello and Joe Strummer, to Kurt Cobain.

To articulate this world between childhood and independence, Sater has given the text both toughness and poetry. Though Wedekind wrote it in 1890, several years before Sigmund Freud’s ‘Interpretation of Dreams’ would give scientific support to much of the playwright’s dramatic motif, it was not staged in his native Germany for a decade and a half. It took another 11 years for it to reach England. Its production history has been marred by charges of pornography.

To be sure, there isn’t a lot of hiding behind metaphor here. Sater, Sheik and Mayer are simply dealing in what are – or should be – universal experiences of maturation: isolated fantasy and masturbation, to exploration and intercourse with lovers. To be honest, the creators include an act of coupling to straddle the interval. And yet, all who have been through it – or hope to not be shocked. It’s message is meant to awakened elders to the responsibility of communicating honestly.

The story follows three of the teens Wendla, Melchior (Kyle Riabko), and Moritz (Blake Bashoff). Wedekind subtitled it “A Children¹s Tragedy.” And, all three tragically will find their awakenings perilous. All the adults (played by two actors Angela Reed and Henry Stram to reinforce the solidarity of the parentocracy) are unhelpful and pig-headed at best, brutal and dangerous at worst. Wendla¹s story gives the play symmetry. After the non-conversation with her mother, she fends for herself, riding her urges to a hayloft where the irresistible Melchior sits swatting at his own demons. They meld in the straw, giving Act I its button, and the show its fulcrum.

After the break the world has changed. The genie is out of the box, and the kids have knowledge and independence. But for many of them, it does not translate to fulfillment. Moritz is especially lost, while Melchior and Wendla¹s exploration has borne fruit. Her complicit mother demands to know: “What have you done?” When Wendla pleads innocent, her mother snaps back “Oh, I think you know!” She is so in denial of her role that she has convinced herself that her daughter magically learned what she refused her. Now, she shames Wendla for asking about.

And, here¹s where the third rail of the play¹s themes comes in: the pious abuse of religion. The adults in ‘Awakening’ uphold The Bible, but only to bring it down with a vengeance on the heads of their hormonally jostled juveniles. They hope to beat lust from the teens the way one beats dust from blankets on a line.

The ensemble is so seamless, and the assignments so well divided that everyone, from the three leads to the violinists and ensemble members who spend the show in shadow exude ownership in the piece. More kudos to Mayer for creating such an environment.

One of the many joys is the band. Small and cohesive, they are as energized as the cast and as animated as a rock band. Cues from Music Director Jared Stein, who plays keyboards, blend traditional measure-counting with an animated piano-bench bounce and dancing hands that jab the backbeat with pistol fingers.

Despite Wedekind’s tortured message, the performances leave us with a sense of optimism. Sater supports this with a song near the end. Like the natural order to which the show¹s title alludes, people are capable of breaking through whatever sod is shoveled over them. With the eternal innocence of rock posturing, it¹s hard not to believe it. The yank of spring is still a time to shake ourselves free of the clods. And that is the first step to the fruit that lies ahead. The ensemble sings Sater’s lines: “All shall know the wonder of purple summer.”

Here’s to parents who wake up and make getting there less bruising.


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SPRING AWAKENING

Book and lyrics by STEVEN SATER

music by DUNCAN SHIEK

directed by MICHAEL MAYER

AHMANSON THEATRE

October 29-December 7, 2008
(Opened, rev'd 10/30)

CAST Krystina Alabado, Christy Altomare, Blake Bashoff, Julie Benko, Todd Cerveris, Steffi D, Chase Davidson, Kate Fuglei, Gabrielle Garza, Kimiko Glenn, Sarah Hunt, Anthony Lee Medina Andy Mientus, Ben Moss, Angela Reed, Kyle Riabko, Perry Sherman, Matt Shingledecker, Claire Sparks, Henry Stram, Lucas A. Well

MUSICIANS Jared Stein, conductor/keyboards; Freddy hall, guitar; Julie Danielson, bass; Kristen Lee Rosenfeld; Marques Walls, drums; Alon Bisk, cello; Ben Lively, violin; Karen Waltuch, viola

PRODUCTION Christine Jones, set; Susan Hilferty, costumes; Kevin Adams, lighting; Brian Ronan, lights; Duncan Sheik, orchestrations; Simon Hale, string arrangements; AnnMarie Milazzo, vocal arrangements; Kimberly Grigsby, music supervision; Jared Stein, music direction; Bill T Jones, choreography


Anthony Lee Medina, Andy Mientus, Matt Shingledecker, Kyle Riabko, Blake Bashoff and Ben Moss
Paul Kolnik
Brandon Miller, Brad Heberlee, Alison Weller, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Stephen Plunkett and Emily Ackerman in 'This Beautiful City' at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Photo by Craig Schwartz

Rocky mount

Like hikers scaling Pike's Peak, the Rocky Mountain that dominates the skyline west of Colorado Springs, The Civilians provide thrilling spectacle as they challenge the heaven-scraping grandeur of This Beautiful City, an interview-based "dram-umentary" now at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through October 26. But just as they make the loftiest point, and crest to begin winding back down, it gets cloudy and they wander slightly off the trail.

Still, that first-half ascent alone is wondrous enough to justify the drive to Culver City.

This West Coast premiere is the latest of The Civilians' half-dozen "investigative theater" projects. Artistic Director Steve Cosson and Jim Lewis created the script from interviews, news stories and a minimum of original dialogue. Cosson, Lewis and five of the six cast members interviewed hundreds of Colorado Springs residents while living among them in the weeks surrounding the 2006 mid-term elections.

Colorado Springs was already home to the U.S. Air Force Academy and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) when in 1984 it attracted the mega-ambitions of evangelist Ted Haggard. Haggard in turn attracted thousands of fellow fundamentalists as he grew the biggest fish in an over-stocked pond of large, small, white, black, conservative and liberal churches. Haggard's mission for New Life church was widely know to be the conversion of Colorado Springs into a Christian community.

And that is what attracted The Civilians.

Onstage ensemble members Emily Ackerman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brad Heberlee, Brandon Miller, Stephen Plunkett and Alison Weller (except Miller) joined the writers in tape recording conversations with church leaders, local journalists, parishioners, atheists, business people, cadets at the Academy, and apparently anyone else who would sit still. We can hear in the responses used in the script that the residents overcame any suspicions of the The Civilians' motives. Those instincts were justified, for The Civilians have treated all their subjects with rare respect.

Then, while fishing for reactions to Haggard's the mega-church from average folks inside and outside New Life, they netted a story of Shakespearean scale. That discovery, judiciously planted as the act break cliff-hanger, marks the show's dramatic peak. It lands with the storytelling wallop of divine intervention – a gift from a fed-up God.

The act break is a dramaturgical gift, too, as it comes after the first stall in what had been consistently mounting dramatic tension. The tension alone is a major achievement, because it develops sublimely through the unadorned presentation of conversation. Suddenly we are experiencing the rare power of people presented objectively. Most artists (and reporters) would be tempted to editorialize by adding subtle shadings of attitude and cynicism. The Civilians, true to their non-affiliated name, resist applying a single brush-stroke of irony. Because of that – and superb, honest acting - we're allowed to hang on every word, and watch how some of the speakers are eventually hanged by them.

The actors, whenever possible, "perform" the people they interviewed. They are clearly operating with that extra measure of consciousness that comes with a commitment to something bigger than craft. Over-familiar journalists can lose objectivity with too close a relationship to their subjects. These investigative thespians only get closer to the truth. The way they bring their subjects back alive not only protects their sources, but safeguards their play's relevance.

While they should all be singled out, we'll mention Brad Heberlee because one of his characters is so illustrative of the phenomenon. His impassioned minister is the charismatic fisher of men who gets us to willingly sign over title. Without the slightest indication that he's working at it, Heberlee expertly delivers this character, wearing his enormous charisma loose enough so the unctuous charm never soaks through. The entire cast, however, performs similar miracles creating great characterizations of a transsexual, a black minister, and a local weekly editor who is dumbfounded by Haggard's success.

The stall occurs during the late act one scene with the RHOP, when one member launches into an explanation of what inspires their faith. There's a palpable drag as for the first time it feels like we've heard this before with equal sincerity and passion. It's as if our climb has plateaued. The same group will produce an even more egregious diversion when we follow the group's leader as he rambles along a cross-country video blog. It may bring closure to that sub-story, but it's at a cost of diluting the play's energy.

Much of that energy comes from Michael Friedman's original music, performed by Tom Corbett, Erik James, Mike Schadel and Brian Duke Song. It beautifully captures how the narcotic pop of contemporary Christian music can mask what, lyrically, is only one story. Ken Travis' sound design, so subtle it could be missed, is another example of the power of understatement.

The physical production is dominated by Neil Patel's God's-eye view of Suburbia. Patel, Cosson and company come up with more entertaining things to do on its rooftops than Jerome Robbins did in America. The housestops become projection screens, light boxes, backdrops and ultimately a kind of city planner's Google map of Eden. Costumes by Alix Hester are a perfect fit, from the camouflaged editor to the wolves in sheep's clothing.

Structural quibbles aside, there is so much to love here. The gentle juxtaposition of God the Father and Mother Nature, in the guise of several National Park guides, is elegant. The last ranger to appear reminds us, "Even with a map you can get lost." A good reminder for trailblazing preachers, backpackers, and playwrights. (This Beautiful City will be Off-Broadway at the co-producing Vineyard Theater in 2009.)


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THIS BEAUTIFUL CITY

by STEVE COSSON and JIM LEWIS
music and lyrics by MICHAEL FRIEDMAN directed by STEVE COSSON

KIRK DOUGLAS THEATRE

September 21-October 26, 2008
(Opened, rev'd 9/28)

CAST WITH Emily Ackerman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brad Heberlee, Brandon Miller, Stephen Plunkett, Alison Weller
MUSICIANS Tom Corbett, Erik James, Mike Schadel, Brian Duke Song

PRODUCTION Neil Patel, set; Alix Hester, costumes; David Weiner, lights; Ken Travis, sound; Jason H. Thompson, projections; Erik James, musical direction; John Carrafa, choreography; Hannah Cohen/Jennifer Brienen, stage management

HISTORY West Coast Premiere A co-production with Vineyard Theatre


Brandon Miller, Brad Heberlee, Alison Weller, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Stephen Plunkett and Emily Ackerman
Craig Schwartz